Talking About Death on the Sidewalk on a Saturday

I didn’t expect to love running into people so much. When we moved into our house (from a condo and multiple apartments before that), I vaguely noted that, for the the first time, we would have actual neighbors. Sure, we had had upstairs and downstairs and across-the-hall neighbors for years, and depending on the setting and the people, these relationships had ranged anywhere from vague recognition when crossing paths near the mailboxes to spending part of New Years Eve together. But apartment dwelling leaves little space (literally) for being out and about and bumping into, or letting your lives overlap with, the people around you. So moving into a real house in a real neighborhood admittedly made me feel like I was finally being, well, a real grown-up. All of which promptly flew out the window when we faced the gutting and complete renovation of our new home and eventually “moved in,” if you can actually call squatting on the second floor, sleeping on air mattresses and using taped-up plastic garbage bags as doors and having no working kitchen “moving in.”

But I digress.

One of the huge perks of living in our house – besides finally having real walls and working plumbing and heat – has been living in a neighborhood and getting to know the people around us. Impromptu chats while doing yard work or strolling down the sidewalk add a layer of richness to our lives that I didn’t realize was missing.

Several months ago, as I returned home after a weekend morning of rounding at the hospital, our neighbor’s dog hurled himself at me in greeting. I ruffled the fur around his ears and neck as his owner, whose friendship has been a far greater perk to house-dwelling than I ever anticipated, caught up to him.

Our casual catching-up evolved in a short time to more serious stuff. I knew she had just lost a family member and traveled to her hometown for the funeral. I didn’t want to make her sad by asking about it – how the funeral was, how her family was, how she was coping – but much more importantly, I wanted her to know that I cared. So I asked. And she shared. And we hugged and shared some more.

We started talking about how sometimes people at the end of life hold on for something specific. I shared some stories of patients I have cared for – including one whose recent death I was grieving – and the things it seemed they had waited for in order to let go: the first of the month, a specific visitor, a specific date. Sometimes it has seemed that people wanted to hold out for some event or some transition that let them know that their family members would be okay. (I realize I’m being vague here, but my intent is not to share any stories that are potentially identifying.)

As we talked and grew teary and sentimental and felt chills and shared memories, we realized that we both felt a lot better than we had just an hour before. “We don’t talk about death!” my friend exclaimed. Paraphrasing now: “We don’t talk about death but it’s so natural and it happens and we should!”

In my job, I do talk about death fairly frequently, but outside of my work and my closest circle of family and friends (who might actually be tired of talking and hearing about death – sorry, guys), we as a culture don’t. We skirt around or overtly avoid it as much as possible. And we certainly don’t strike up conversations about death and grief on the side of the road on an otherwise-lovely Saturday.

But what if we did? What if we made it a more normal part of our thoughts and our discourse and, well, our lives? Forget making it that way; it’s pervasive and inevitable and the most natural thing in the world, so what if we just stopped actively avoiding it and pushing it away? What if we called it what it is, owned that it can be scary and sad, and then talked about it and made it less scary? And, though sad, more manageable and more easily integrated into our lives?

On that particular Saturday, we hugged one more time and parted ways. There was nothing special about the rest of the day – she went home to prepare her dog’s food for the week; I went inside to continue answering calls and to eat animal crackers on the couch with my children. It was all mundane stuff, the stuff that’s so good and special and raw. But I felt different. I felt more alive, more present, more engaged with the world around me and more ready to face whatever came next. All because of a casual chat with a casual of friend about the least casual of topics… proving that just maybe it really doesn’t have to be quite so loaded.

4 thoughts on “Talking About Death on the Sidewalk on a Saturday

  1. Bruce MacDonell

    I’m not sure what to say. I know we all have to face the death of loved ones, and even our own demise, but it happens infrequently in most of our lives. I am not sure how we can prepare ourselves for it. It will happen, we will grieve, and then we must go on. Such is life. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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    1. I think we can talk about it when it happens, and when it is impending. We can be open with what we experience as we lose those who are close to us.
      And, perhaps most importantly, we can talk to one another about what we hope for in our own ends of life, in terms of how we want to live our last years/months/days, what is most important to us, and how we can support one another as we travel through our lives.

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  2. Taygan Yilmaz

    As I briefly mentioned last night, this is a very well-written piece. We would do well as a society to be more open-minded about talking about death prior to it actually happening to our loved ones.

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